Bairnsfather, Bullets and Billets

Posted on Friday 13th December 2013


Major and Mrs Holt have written the only biography of First World War cartoonist Captain Bruce Bairnsfather to date, In Search of the Better 'Ole, available from Pen and Sword Books. Having previously arranged for a Blue Plaque to be place on one of Bairnsfather's studios at 1 Sterling Street, Kensington, the authors have now begun a campaign to gain formal recognition for Bairnsfather's work ahead of the Great War Centenary commemorations. For more details of their campaign, see their Facebook page.
Ten years ago to the day, on 13 December 2003, Major and Mrs Holt unveiled a bronze plaque on the wall of a cottage in the village of St Yvon, Belgium, where Bairnsfather was billeted and where he drew his first cartoons and created his immortal character, 'Old Bill'. The plaque bears the cartoon 'They've evidently seen me' and the ceremony took place on a wet and windy day in the presence of the Mayor and dignitaries of Warneton, Chaplain Ray Jones, the local and and standard bearers, members of the Khaki Chums, readers of the Old Bill Newsletter, many WFA, RBL and Holt family members and friends from Warneton, Ieper, Poperinge, the UK and Holland. In a situation that Bairnsfather himself would have appreciated, a large group that had travelled from England for the ceremony was delayed by enthusiastic local police, who were controlling security, and missed the ceremony. Un deterred, the band was recalled, the Khaki Chums marched again, the bugles were blown and Padre Ray blessed the plaque a second time.

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Bairnsfather at work - one of his own cartoons.

On one occasion when Bairnsfather and several of his comrades were in the cottage, the Germans began to shell the village and, knowing that the enemy would have ranged his guns on the buildings, they dashed outside and took cover in a nearby ditch. At last when the shelling seemed to be over they went back to the cottage and just as they did so a heavy shell landed close by and to a man they rushed to the broken doorway and with one voice exclaimed, 'Where did that go to?' Bairnsfather turned the situation into a cartoon of that title. It was an action that was to lead to a lifetime career which included the immortal character 'Old Bill' that emerged from his cartoons, collectively called Fragments from France, stage place with C. B. Cochran, requests from France, Italy and America for him to draw for them, films with Alexander Korda and even to his appointment as Official Cartoonist to the American 8th Air Force in World War II. This story is examined in In Search of the Better 'Ole - The Life, Times and the Collectables of Bruce Bairnsfather
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Captain Bruce Bairnsfather.

In pursuit of their ongoing Bairnsfather Campaign, Major and Mrs Holt presented a copy of Bairnsfather's book Bullets and Billets to the Mayor of Plugstreet at the opening of the new Plugstreet Interpretation Centre. The authors have been involved in the idea of the Centre for about 18 months and much of the inspiration comes from the connection with Bairnsfather who drew his first cartoons barely a mile away at the cottage where the memorial plaque was placed exactly 10 years ago on 13 December. Next year a further extension of the museum will be opened and the authors will present a small exhibition of Bairnsfather's work preceded by an illustrated lecture.

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Pictured above (left to right) are: Valmai and Tonie Holt, a General from New Zealand, the New Zeland Ambassador and Gilbert Deleu - the Mayor of Plugstreet.

Further Reading


Major & Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide to Ypres Salient & Passchendaele
(Paperback - 272 pages)
ISBN: 9780850525519

by Major and Mrs Holt
Only £16.99

This is the most complete guide to the First World War Battlefield of Ypres that has ever been published. Tonie and Valmai Holt, have condensed the knowledge gained from almost a quarter of a century of researching, writing about, visiting and conducting groups around Ypres into this remarkable book. Here are concise descriptions of the military elements of the battles woven into a kaleidoscope of human, literary and travel information. There are recommended, timed itineraries, in each itinerary representing one day's travelling. Every stop on the routes has an accompanying…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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